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A new study shows lighting up a cigarette changes a person’s gene activity across the body, a possible clue as to why smoking affects overall health—from heart disease to combating infections, LiveScience reports.
A research team from Australia and San Antonio, Texas, analyzed white blood cell samples of 1,240 mainly Mexican-American people, ages 16-94, who were participating in the San Antonio Family Heart Study.
They found that the 297 self-identified smokers in the group were more likely to have unusual patterns of “gene expression” related to tumor development, inflammation, virus elimination, cell death and more. A gene is expressed when it codes for a protein that then instructs, or kick-starts, a process in the body.
The study found cigarette smoke could alter the level of expression of 323 genes.
“On some levels, we were surprised by the extent of the influence exposure to cigarette smoke had on gene expression, especially considering we used such a simple measure of smoke exposure: smoker or non-smoker,” lead author Jac Charlesworth, a research fellow at the Menzies Research Institute Tasmania in Australia, told LiveScience.
On the other hand, doctors have long known that smoking worsens cancer risk overall, depresses immune systems and causes other problems.
Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 chemical compounds, some of them known carcinogens.
The researchers were able to find subjects by testing samples from people in an existing study of Mexican-American families. It’s likely that smoking would affect other ethnic groups the same way, the researchers wrote, but they could not be sure unless other ethnic groups were involved in the study.